Camping in winter should not be a suffer fest. At least that’s what I hoped when I planned to join the Tahoe Rim Trail Association for its Snow Camp 101 program in March. Before setting out for camp above Tahoe Meadows, we spent a few hours learning the fundamentals of camping on snow.
Preparation and prevention are key for an enjoyable adventure. Weather is a large part of prevention. Campers should be willing to reschedule or cancel trips based on the forecast. Since the weather in the Sierra isn’t entirely predictable, campers should be prepared for a variety of conditions.
A few of us hiked to the top of the ridge and were rewarded with a spectacular sight: a glaring full moon rising in the east as the sun set in the west. A panorama blossomed as we watched in awe.
“Staying dry means staying warm, that includes not overheating and sweating,” says Gerry Eick, who has been guiding for the TRTA for eight years.
Shivering is an early sign of mild hypothermia, so find a way to get warm. Physical activity like jumping jacks will warm you up or if you’re in your sleeping bag, raise your knees to your chest — but remember, don’t get sweaty. Eating will warm you up. A common misconception is that alcohol warms you, but it actually enhances hypothermia.
Clothing is important in keeping warm. Layers work best. Cotton holds moisture and is not recommended. Polypropylene is a good choice, but wool is best. Wool is great at absorbing moisture and it dries relatively quickly, compared to other fibers.
Our second guide, Jim Mrazek, inspected my sleeping system. I have a three-season tent, a Therm-a-Rest mat, an air mattress, an 18-degree sleeping bag with a silk liner and the down booties I splurged on for extra warmth. I get Mrazek’s and Eick’s approval and am eager to go.
Avoid simple mistakes
Before we use a real restroom one last time, John Ferguson, a former Marine Corps Recon leader, reminds us of how simple mistakes cost people their lives.
“Many people get lost just looking for a place to use the bathroom, especially at night,” says Ferguson.
He shared the story of a woman who left the Appalachian Trail to use the bathroom and got lost. She kept a journal for one month before she died. This is an extreme example, but proves how easily mistakes can be made especially if vision is impaired by snow or fog. He suggested leaving a small light attached to your tent at night or making reflectors from cord and reflective tape to mark the path back. I had never considered a FUD (female urination device) before now.
Setting up camp
We hiked about a mile into camp, just below Chickadee Ridge. The afternoon sun had most of us peeling off layers within minutes. In camp, we immediately scouted our individual spots. I chose a small area bordered on three sides by lodgepole pines. Never camp near dead or dying trees, they can come down or limbs can break and fall on you.
Next, we outlined a space double our tent size by stomping the snow with our snowshoes with backpacks on for added weight and better compaction. We let our sites settle and got to work building the kitchen. We dug and carved into a snowdrift until we created a counter and bench about 20 feet in length.
My tent went up with little effort. After staking it down, I built a small snow wall around the bottom to prevent cold air from circulating under me. I felt confident about the cold night ahead and visited the kitchen to cook my dehydrated meal.
After dinner, the sun dropped below the West Shore and lit the snow with a vibrant violet haze. Clouds of tangerine smeared the last blue light of day above Lake Tahoe. A few of us hiked to the top of the ridge and were rewarded with a spectacular sight: a glaring full moon rising in the east as the sun set in the west. A panorama blossomed as we watched in awe.
The night was bright and cold: 15 degrees. In my sleeping bag, I had on my wool leggings and was wrapped in my puffy North Face jacket. Hand warmers were in my down booties thawing my toes. I wore a wool long-sleeve shirt covered with another down jacket. I had on my beanie and I was still cold. I lifted my knees to my chest 25 times and waited to warm up. I wasn’t shivering, just cold, uncomfortably cold. At 2 a.m. I made the trek to my pre-planned, pre-stomped bathroom area and fell waist deep into the tree well I was supposed to avoid. I was cold the entire night and looked forward to dawn.
At breakfast, I learned that six of the seven participants had been cold during the night and that included two couples. We agreed it wasn’t a miserable cold, just uncomfortable enough to prevent sleep. For me, snow camping was worth the sacrifice. The lack of bears, bugs and crowds was also a perk. Spending the night in a snowy wilderness has a liberating charm and is worth the trial and error it takes to learn to camp comfortably.